I just returned from a trip to Argentina – home to hundreds of thousands of Jewish people, including some real Jewish cowboys! These kosher cowboys are called in Spanish “Gauchos Judios”- literally “Jewish cowboys.”
Many people mistakenly think that the Jewish population in Argentina grew as a result of an influx of refugees from the Holocaust. Actually, the Jewish immigration to Argentina began during the same time that there was massive immigration from Eastern Europe to the United States and Canada. Between the late 1880s and World War I, almost two million Jewish people traveled to what was known as “the Golden land”– the United States of America – in order to get as far away from Eastern European anti-Semitism as they possibly could.
The great Jewish leader Baron Maurice de Hirsch knew that the days of the Jewish people in the area known as the Pale of Settlement (including parts of Russia, Ukraine and Romania) were numbered because of the increase of vicious pogroms against the Jews living in that area. Baron Maurice de Hirsch purchased land in the northern part of Argentina (the Pampas) to create a safe haven for the Jewish people. Somehow he convinced the Argentine government that receiving the Jewish people would be good for the country – because they would farm the land, raise animals and add to the economy.
Of course, the Jewish people of Eastern Europe were for the most part tradesmen, rabbis, scholars and professionals – not farmers! But Baron Maurice de Hirsch knew that the only way to get the Jewish people into Argentina and away from the pogroms of Eastern Europe was through farming the land.
This was the genesis of the Jewish immigration to Argentina and the origin of the “Gauchos Judios.” However, as hard as the Jewish people tried, it was soon apparent that only a small remnant of immigrants from Eastern Europe would be able to adapt to this new lifestyle. Many Jewish immigrants to Argentina began trading and opening stores in the northern provinces of the country, and then eventually drifting towards the great city of Buenos Aires.
The Jewish people of Argentina – now more than 300,000 – have contributed greatly to the country’s growth. The second generation of Jewish Argentines built upon the foundation laid by their parents and became business owners, professionals, and politicians, establishing a vibrant Jewish life and culture throughout the country, centered in Buenos Aires.
Dozens of synagogues can be found throughout Argentina today. I visited one during the celebration of Sukkot while in Buenos Aires and it was filled with families; young and old, Ashkenazi and Sephardic!
Today, a dynamic Jewish culture is growing in Argentina – expressed through a variety of social and football clubs as well as community centers. There are also some very important rabbinical training institutions in Buenos Aires that continues to train rabbis for all of Latin America; they have even “exported” some of their best rabbinical students to serve in a number of significant synagogues in New York City.
There has always been a close tie between Argentina and Israel. Over the years, many Jewish people left Argentina because of continued anti-Semitism and immigrated to Israel. Tens of thousands of Argentine Jews now live in Israel.
Argentina also became home to many Nazis who fled Germany and other parts of Europe. There have always been strong German, Spanish and Italian communities in Argentina, and many of these Western European immigrants were sympathetic to the Nazis. By the 1950s there was a strong Jewish community as well as a strong ex-Nazi or Nazi-sympathizing community in Argentina.
By the time of my first trip to Argentina in the mid-1970s, one could easily find Spanish versions of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion on newsstands in Argentina. A number of the Jewish residents of Argentina were politically on the left and became part of the opposition to the military government in those years. There was also a disproportionate number of Jewish people who became “disappearing ones” and lost their lives as a result of their protest against what was viewed as a Fascist government.
There have also been strong communities of Jewish people in Argentina who believe in Jesus the Messiah. Some come from Europe during the early waves of immigration, but many came to Argentina during and after the Holocaust. One group of these Messianic Jews were from Vienna and came to Argentina via Sweden, as the Swedish Lutheran Church helped many Jewish people escape Nazi terror through their Outreach Center in Vienna.
These Messianic Jews traveled from Vienna to Stockholm, but because Sweden was unwilling to allow the Jewish people to remain in their country, many of the Jewish people emigrated to Argentina – still one of the only countries that would allow them to enter.
One of those who escaped Vienna and came to Argentina was Emmanuel Lichtenstein, who was serving as a missionary to the Jewish people with Chosen People Ministries in Vienna, in a partnership with the Swedish Lutheran church.
The work of Emmanuel Lichtenstein grew in Argentina and many Bible studies were established as well as a branch of the Messianic Jewish Alliance (called the Hebrew Christian Alliance at that time). The Bible studies and worship services were mostly conducted in Yiddish, especially since the Messianic Jews in Argentina were mostly Ashkenazi Jews.
The work of Chosen People Ministries in Argentina continues to this day. Argentina’s Jewish community remains vibrant, and after spending a week in Buenos Aires, I can tell you that my love of and burden for the Jewish people of this great country has only increased.
Unfortunately, anti-Semitism continues to rear its ugly head in beautiful Buenos Aires. I saw a number of Swastikas painted on the walls in Jewish areas of the city. The Jewish people continue to associate anti-Semitism with both Nazism and Christianity. It is a real shame – but it is understandable in light of all that has transpired over the last century!
I met many Jewish believers in Argentina during this last trip, and every single one of them came to faith through the loving testimony of a Gentile believer who, in the power of the Holy Spirit, was able to share the Good News with them.
Just imagine a new ministry… Jewish Cowboys for Messiah!